Watch your head

October, 19, 2010
10/19/10
4:01
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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The NFL is going through some soul-searching right now, thanks to new awareness about the long-term dangers associated with football's many hard collisions to the head.

As a basketball fan, it's tempting to wag a finger and say something like: See, I told you that sport was too violent.

But I don't really feel like that.

For one thing, plenty of kids are getting concussions playing basketball. Tara Parker-Pope wrote a few weeks ago in The New York Times:
A report in Pediatrics found that basketball accounted for more than 9 percent of athletic concussions among 8- to 19-year-olds, placing it second among youth sports, behind only football (22 percent). Soccer ranks third, at 7.7 percent, followed by hockey and baseball, just under 4 percent each.

Basketball's numbers are inflated, of course, by the large numbers of participants; in terms of individual risk, concussion rates among 12- to 17-year-olds are highest for ice hockey (29 per 10,000 players), followed by football (27), soccer (8), basketball (4) and baseball (3).

Still, the growing proportion of head injuries is troubling.

My bigger reaction to the NFL's developing crisis is to say that this is what it feels like when the Information Age pokes its nose into your business, and in that regard you ain't seen nothing yet.

Brainiacs with laptops are telling us things we never knew before, about everything in life. It's wonderful and promising and strange and scary all at the same time. And it's also incredibly powerful. You can book it now that, thanks to those well-laptopped brainiacs, big changes are coming, quickly, to many nooks and crannies of American life: Health care, politics, Wall Street ... Even football.

Basically, data is now present where shrugs once sufficed. Your kid is playing college football. It's a violent sport. Are you, as a parent, OK with that? Most parents, I think, in the past, would have shrugged, and said something like: Lots of people have played college football in the past, and they seem fine. But it's 2010, and now you can read paragraphs like this one, from The New York Times' Alan Schwarz:
During a full season of practice, each team averaged 2,500 total hits to the head that measured as significant blows (50 to 79 g’s of force) and about 300 hits to the head that were considered in the concussion-causing range (80 to 119 g’s). Each team experienced almost 200 practice collisions that measured above 120 g’s, which experts have likened to crashing a car into a concrete wall at 40 miles an hour.

That's just football practice! Now that's something we didn't already know. That is different. That's hard to ignore.

You wouldn't let your children go off to college to crash cars into concrete, right?

Parents once knew their kids were facing a blow or two now and again. Now they get to know the numbers, and they're big and scary, especially when combined with new evidence linking head blows in youth to very scary long-term brain disease.

The debate in football has one side saying, essentially, that this is football. It's not a new sport, and people have always gotten hurt. And that's that. The argument has a certain appeal. (The last thing you want to do is scare yourself, in the name of health, into a life locked inside with TV, junk food, obesity, heart disease and all that.)

Then there's another side saying that we always knew there were some injuries, but now we're learning they are more and worse than we ever thought, and here's proof.

When you add those last three words, you invite big changes, because of shifting perceptions, but also because evidence of something causing injuries is an amazing way to attract game-changing lawsuits. "It's just football as we know it" is not always a good enough excuse. It might be that some things that have always happened in football are just not OK. Sports have evolved in all kinds of ways through the years, to become racially integrated for instance, or higher-scoring. Evolving to prevent profound injuries and brain disease ... people are arguing against that, but I wonder how long they'll be able to keep that up as the evidence -- and injuries -- mount against them.

We're going to have data popping up all over in our lives where we were once blissfully ignorant. We need to get used to that, and adjust to it. Because what's not going to happen is that we're just going to be able to keep everything the way it was -- not once we have convincing research showing we're going about things in ways that are dangerous, stupid or both.

Henry Abbott | email

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